Former President Donald Trump touted his lead over Gov. Ron DeSantis in polls, took credit for the governor’s 2018 victory, jabbed at DeSantis on Social Security and Medicare and said without him DeSantis would just be a lawyer hustling for business, needling the governor on his home turf during a speech Friday in Southwest Florida.
Trump also highlighted the recent stampede by Florida’s GOP congressional delegation to endorse him over DeSantis, calling out by name most of the lawmakers who endorsed him in front of 840 people gathered for a sold-out Lee County Republican Party fundraising dinner.
The endorsements are an effort to put DeSantis on the defensive in his home state, and Trump kept the pressure on during the event at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center in Fort Myers.
In addition to poking at DeSantis, Trump touted his record as president, complained about the legal investigations into his conduct and slammed President Joe Biden, drawing big applause from the crowd.
Trump received another enthusiastic reception after the speech when he stopped at a pizza restaurant handing out slices as diners applauded, screamed and chanted “USA, USA, USA.”
With many at the GOP fundraising dinner strongly supportive of DeSantis’ record in Florida, Trump’s jabs at the governor weren’t as aggressive as some of his recent social media comments or a scathing email sent out by his campaign Friday.
The Trump campaign email declared Florida is “among the worst” states to raise a family, work and retire under DeSantis and said: “The real DeSantis record is one of misery and despair.”
Yet Trump didn’t shy away from poking at DeSantis in his back yard, painting the governor as beholden to the former president.
“Sir, I’d love to have your support sir, I’d love to have your support,” Trump said, imitating DeSantis begging for his endorsement in 2018.
Trump’s endorsement helped DeSantis vault past his 2018 GOP primary opponent Adam Putnam, and the former president was happy to point that out Friday, saying DeSantis took off “like a rocket ship” after getting Trump’s blessing.
“Otherwise right now you’d have a lawyer some place looking for business,” Trump said of DeSantis, an attorney.
Trump also alluded to his criticism of votes DeSantis took while in Congress on Social Security and Medicare.
“I will always protect Social Security and Medicare,” Trump said, adding: “Gee, I wonder who voted for hurting Social Security and I wonder who voted for partially dismantling Medicare? Who is it?”
Trump’s campaign is running an ad slamming DeSantis’ entitlement votes.
DeSantis is widely viewed as Trump’s strongest opponent in a GOP presidential primary, having endeared himself to conservative voters during battles against COVID-19 restrictions and on culture war issues.
Trump has been surging in the polls lately, though, with DeSantis peaking in GOP presidential primary surveys shortly after his blowout re-election win in Florida. DeSantis was beating Trump in some polls earlier this year, but has struggled lately.
Trump delighted Friday in his improving poll numbers over DeSantis.
Pointing to a series of slides projected on a large screen, he touted poll after poll showing him well ahead.
One of the slides declared: “Trump Posts Biggest Lead Yet Over DeSantis.”
While Trump mentioned DeSantis in passing multiple times, he mostly aimed his fire at Biden. The crowd erupted when Trump mocked Biden as senile, imitating Biden fumbling around, unaware of his surroundings, saying: “Where am I?”
The biggest applause, though, came when Trump declared he will be the 47th president, with the crowd rising for a standing ovation.
While DeSantis hasn’t announced a campaign for president, he is widely expected to challenge Trump and has been laying the groundwork to run. An announcement isn’t likely until after Florida’s legislative session ends in May.
Republicans attending Friday’s dinner said they like both Trump and DeSantis.
Gina Petraglia, a physical therapist from Fort Myers, said she’s waiting to see how the race plays out before choosing a candidate.
“I love Trump,” Petraglia said. “I think he’s absolutely able to fix what’s going wrong these days… but I also love DeSantis.”
Petraglia said she takes Trump’s attacks on DeSantis with “a grain of salt,” believing they are a sign he views the governor as his biggest threat.
“I think he’s trying to establish an early lead, I think that’s part of his personality,” Petraglia said of Trump’s criticisms. “I don’t hear him going after (Nikki) Haley as much or the others… if DeSantis runs (Trump) knows where his competition is going to be.”
Trump’s efforts to undercut DeSantis before he even gets into the presidential race have taken many forms. His big endorsement push over the last week with Florida lawmakers has received a lot of attention.
Trump called lawmakers to ask for their endorsement and hosted a dinner with them at his Mar-a-Lago club Thursday. DeSantis also has been courting Florida’s congressional delegation, but only one member has endorsed him.
Trump’s style of personally connecting with lawmakers to discuss their endorsements contrasts with DeSantis, who had aides reach out to members of Florida’s congressional delegation, according to NBC.
DeSantis often is described as shirking some of the glad-handing that comes with politics.
Trump seems to be making an effort to highlight his personal touch, which was on display Friday when he stopped at Downtown House of Pizza.
Crowds inside and outside the restaurant screamed as Trump arrived downtown on a busy Friday night. He posed for pictures with diners and staff, ate a slice of pizza and handed slices to the crowd.
A man said he was taking the slice he received from Trump home to preserve it. A woman turned to the man next to her and asked if he shook Trump’s hand.
“I did!” he said.
The woman started jumping up and down, screaming with excitement.